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Working on the Right Stuff - Prioritizing Epics in Jira Align

I recently had the opportunity to help a customer prioritize their Epic Backlog for the first time, and we leveraged Jira Align to do it. We brought together 12+ senior leaders to review 40+ Epics, and the result was a new level of visibility and alignment for the organization. Here’s a brief synopsis of what we did so others can leverage the ideas to help obtain their own Portfolio alignment.


The Problem

Like Hotel California, the problem this Portfolio team faced was that once an Epic checked into the Backlog, it struggled to check out (e.g. complete). This was likely due to a number of factors, but the one which stood out was that Epics were rarely re-evaluated and reprioritized. An Epic would continue to be worked on until all work completed, even if the value from the Epic had already been extracted. The Portfolio team was looking for a way to help identify these low value Epics, so naturally we decided to prioritize the Epic Backlog.


Let’s Try WSJF

With 40+ Epics, we decided to leverage Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) to establish an initial priority for the Epic Backlog. In order to apply the WSJF scoring, we leverage the Epic Estimation Column View in Jira Align.


Screen Shot 2020-09-28 at 10.40.09 PM.png

What I love about this view (and the process it enables) is that it allows you to relatively size each attribute of WSJF, both independently and visually. We leveraged the view to review each Epic and determine how to score it (moving the card to the appropriate value on the horizontal plain) without being influenced by how we had scored the Epic on other attributes of the WSJF score.


The Scoring

We started off the scoring ceremony by establishing some ground rules, including…

  • This is a safe space, and we believe everyone is here with the best intent in mind

  • Everyone brings something to this conversation

  • Be conscious of time

  • We will seek consent (not consensus) in our estimation

  • We will pursue good enough (not perfection)

Once we established our ground rules, we started the scoring process. In Jira Align we traveled to the Epic Estimation page (Portfolio > Backlog > Estimate > Column View) and reviewed each Epic for each attribute of the WSJF score. We followed the cadence below…

  • Epic Owner shares high-level context for Epic

  • Group asks clarifying questions

  • Vote (we used, a free site that allows a group to use digital planning poker cards)

  • Align on a value and move on OR revote after new context is obtained

Screen Shot 2020-09-28 at 10.04.27 PM.png

Ultimately we spent 8 hours scoring the 40+ Epics, leaving the session with an initially prioritized Epic Backlog (by WSJF score).


Note: A WSJF score is valuable to help identify an initial Backlog priority, but should be looked at as a conversation starter to help finalize your priority (it is not the end all, be all prioritization).


Was It Worth It?

Short answer…YES! Even though the activity cost the Portfolio team a full day of time, the conversations were priceless. The team mentioned that this was the first time they achieved a shared understanding of all their Epic work, which is allowing them to determine if they should truly continue working on all these Epics going into the next quarter. Additionally, the scoring pushed a lot of high priority Epics to the bottom of the Backlog because of the high job size associated with the Epics. This prompted the Portfolio team to re-evaluate some of these Epics to determine if they could reduce the size of the work without diminishing the desired value (e.g. eliminating the gold platting). The team is already talking about how they plan to evolve the process so that they can conduct the ceremony each quarter in order to keep a pulse on the true priority of their Epic Backlog.


Final Thoughts

I know it’s obvious, but it’s so important to prioritize your Epic Backlog. Teams will deliver - that’s what they do - but without a clear understanding of which big rocks matter most, they may not deliver what our business or customers need. Jira Align provides some fantastic functionality to help enable your Epic prioritization process and can amplify the behaviors you’re seeking to establish within your organization.

1 comment

Rich Sparks Atlassian Team Sep 29, 2020

Great article, @Mark Cruth 

One of things that's important in the example you described is that the portfolio team was trying to prioritize among 40 different epics. That's a lot to work with, but it's still manageable. When an organization is trying to prioritize across a backlog of 100 or 200 epics, then it becomes practically impossible. You may get everyone to agree on what the top priority item is, or what the bottom priority is, but the distinctions in the middle will become meaningless. 

One of the benefits of limiting the amount of work in progress is that the team really can look at all the work and make effective, meaningful decisions about where to put the organization's time and money. And development teams can clearly see how the things they're working on are supporting the organization's strategic goals. 


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